On Friday, the US Embassy in China issued its second health alert in two weeks warning Americans to be aware of mysterious medical symptoms. The second warning came after additional consulate staff in the southern city of Guangzhou have been evacuated due to unexplained symptoms. Americans were advised to seek medical attention for “unusual, unexplained physical symptoms or events, auditory or sensory phenomena, or other health concerns.”
In May, an alert was issued after one US government official was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury after experiencing “abnormal sensations of sound and pressure”. That case prompted medical testing which revealed more individuals having been affected, the AP reports.
The most recent evacuations followed medical testing that revealed they might have been affected. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said “a number of individuals” had been brought to the U.S. but didn’t say how many were affected or evacuated.
Friday’s alert called for people to be attentive of symptoms including “dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, ear complaints and hearing loss, and difficulty sleeping.” It urged them “not to attempt to locate the source of any unidentified auditory sensation. Instead, move to a different location.”
The incidents in China mirror what the US government calls an attack on diplomats in Cuba last year, which resulted in 24 US officials and family members falling ill with mysterious symptoms, as CNN reported in May.
At a congressional hearing in January, US officials detailed how personnel came to experience a variety of symptoms including sharp ear pain, headaches, ringing in one ear, vertigo, disorientation, attention issues and signs consistent with mild traumatic brain injury or concussion. In nearly all cases, the ailments were preceded by some sort of “acoustic element,” such as a “high-pitched beam of sound” or a “baffling sensation akin to driving with the windows partially open in a car.”
The incident in China is being called “entirely consistent” with and “very similar” to injuries sustained by American diplomats in Cuba in 2016 and 2017. As a result of the injuries, the US Embassy in Havana is now being staffed at a minimum level. 10 Canadian diplomats stationed in Cuba have reported similar symptoms and families of Canadian diplomats were called home in April.
According to the AP, the Canadian government said the 10 injured individuals show unexplained brain symptoms and that “medical information raised concerns for a new type of a possible acquired brain injury.” The injuries sustained by the consulate staff evacuated from Guangzhou are being studied in Pennsylvania.
A U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the situation publicly and requested anonymity, said the evacuated American government workers were being brought from China for testing to the University of Pennsylvania. That’s where doctors have been treating and studying patients previously evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
The preliminary findings of the medical reports on the 24 personnel affected in Cuba showed they had sensory and memory problems similar to the brain dysfunction seen with concussions.
The Penn team said the patients from Cuba experienced persistent disability though rehabilitation therapy customized for them seemed to help.
After the alert was issued in May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the incident is being looked at as a possible “sonic attack”. The Chinese government pledged to cooperate in the investigation but both governments remain in the dark as to the cause of the injuries. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not blame the Cuban government for the attack but held them responsible for allowing them to continue. The Cuban government suggested the injuries were the result of mass hysteria.
The Guardian reports that the US claim that only one injury was origninally known to have occurred in China is questionable.
When the US issued a health alert in May to US citizens in China to report any “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena”, it said it was not aware of other similar cases within or outside the US diplomatic community in China.
That has been disputed by Mark Lenzi, a security engineering officer at the consulate in Guangzhou, who, according to the New York Times, was among the personnel evacuated on Wednesday.
Lenzi, who lived in the same complex as the consulate worker who suffered brain trauma, said he had been hearing sounds like “marbles bouncing and hitting a floor” since April last year. That was followed by excruciating headaches and sleeplessness, symptoms his family also experienced. When he brought his concerns to his superiors, he was prescribed painkillers.
Lenzi sent an email to staff of the consulate criticising the fact that the first employee was evacuated in April, but US citizens weren’t alerted until a month later. The health alert suggested it was a single case. “They knew full well it wasn’t,” he told the paper.
Secretary of State Pompeo has announced a task force which will look into health incidents such as the ones that have occurred in China and Cube. Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the State Department, has promised transparency in responding to concerns of employees.